I didn’t pay attention to who directed which movies when I was a kid, but the first filmmaker I was aware of by name and the first to have a visible style that set them apart from other directors was Tim Burton. His visual style was influenced by Dr. Seuss and his narrative style was influenced by Roald Dahl, and as a fan of both of those authors and the Disney film The Nightmare Before Christmas, Tim Burton really captured my imagination.
Burton was born in Burbank, California in 1958 and he had been making crude stop motion animated films since he was a preteen. He found more joy from painting, drawing and watching movies than any kind of athletic or social hobbies.
He attended CalArts to study character animation. The teachers at the renowned art school were not fans of Burton’s stick-figury and unconventional drawing style, but his fellow students, including some future animators at Disney and Pixar, encouraged Burton to remain true to his artistic style because they recognized how special it was.
Burton’s CalArts student short Stalk of the Celery Monster attracted the attention of Disney and they offered Burton apprenticeship at the studio.
In the eighties he did animation, storyboard art and other designs for The Fox and the Hound (1981), Tron (1982) and The Black Cauldron (1985) but his art never made it into any of the finished films.
This is some of his amazing unused artwork from The Black Cauldron. An example of how Tim Burton’s talents were being wasted at Disney.
Tim Burton was sort of the oddball at the Disney studio in this decade and the company wasn’t sure what to do with him.
The best things he created at Disney during this time were his short films, the first of which was Vincent (1982), a six-minute black & white stop motion animated film based on Burton’s own poem, narrated by Vincent Price and starring an eccentric boy who fantasizes that he is Price.
The film played in front of the Disney film Tex for two weeks in L.A. after premiering at the Chicago Film Festival. There had never been an animated Disney film like it before and it was visually outstanding, but it is not well-known.
Even less known is Hansel and Gretel (1983), the live-action Disney Channel special that was based on the Brothers Grimm fairy tale but with a Japanese twist and featuring a kung fu fight between Hansel, Gretel and the witch.
His third and final Disney project Frankenweenie (1984), a live-action short about a kid who tries to revive his dog after it gets run over by a car, caused Disney to fire Burton when they concluded he was spending their money on films that were too scary for children.
That decision turned out to be for the best. Almost immediately after he left Disney, Burton was saved by Warner Bros. and his time at that studio in the late eighties was the most essential time in his career.
It turns out comedian Paul Reubens saw Vincent and chose Burton to direct the first feature film starring Pee-Wee Herman, which would end up being Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure (1985) which followed the man child Pee-Wee on his journey to find out who stole his bike. The movie was perfect for Tim Burton, and it was also notable for setting off Danny Elfman’s composing career.
Burton, a fan of the band Oingo Boingo, asked Danny Elfman to provide music for the film. Since then, Elfman has scored almost every film directed by Burton, with the only exceptions being Ed Wood, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street and Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children.
In my opinion, Tim Burton’s next film was his best and is still unsurpassed. The supernatural comedy Beetlejuice (1988) was about a deceased couple who is unhappy in the afterlife because their old home is being invaded by a new family. The couple end up hiring an obnoxious ghoul played by Michael Keaton to scare the family out. However, the new family’s goth teen daughter played by Winona Ryder can see the dead, which complicates things. It is my favorite film directed by Burton and it was deservedly a box office hit. Enough to spawn an entertaining animated series in 1989 that Burton executive produced.
Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure and Beetlejuice were both successful and Warner Bros. was satisfied with Burton’s ability to deliver hits on small budgets so they decided to entrust him with an even bigger budget when they offered him the chance to direct Batman.
There was drama behind the scenes as Burton clashed with the producers over the casting of Michael Keaton as the title hero, but Burton fought for Keaton as he didn’t think it made sense for Bruce Wayne to be a muscular action star. Although the casting was met with confusion by the public, Jack Nicholson as The Joker attracted an adult audience that didn’t normally watch superhero films.
At the time, the marketing campaign for the film was the biggest in film history and it led to one of the biggest openings for a film ever, not to mention critical acclaim. It was a huge influence on superhero films moving forward, which are more gritty and cerebral as a result of Tim Burton’s film. You can see it in X-Men, Spider-Man, The Dark Knight and even Batman: The Animated Series and the DC superhero shows of The CW.
Burton agreed to direct the 1992 sequel Batman Returns as well. That film also had an impressive cast (Danny DeVito as Penguin, Michelle Pfeiffer as Catwoman and Christopher Walken as business tycoon Max Shreck) but it was seen by some as too dark, especially for a movie that had Happy Meal tie-ins. The next Batman film Batman Forever (1995) would only be produced by Burton. Joel Schumacher directed and Val Kilmer replaced Keaton as Batman.
The movie that many critics think is Burton’s best film is Edward Scissorhands (1990). Starring 21 Jump Street star and teen idol Johnny Depp (in his first of many collaborations with Burton) as the creation of an eccentric inventor played by Vincent Price, Edward was left with scissors for hands when his creator died before he could finish him but he is discovered by a suburban family who takes him in to their home.
Burton has called it his most personal and meaningful film because it represented Burton’s inability to communicate with others in his suburban hometown as a teen. Anyone who knows Burton could see that Edward Scissorhands and Tim Burton were the same person.
My favorite creation of Tim Burton’s is by far the stop motion animated Disney film The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) which my family watched religiously every holiday season. Due to Batman Returns, Burton was not able to direct it. That job went to Burton’s CalArts classmate Henry Selick (who was also hired as an animator for Disney). Caroline Thompson (co-writer of Edward Scissorhands who would later go on to write Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride) was hired to write the screenplay for Tim Burton’s story, and the film was a critical hit, a box office hit and a delightfully offbeat musical fantasy that featured Danny Elfman’s greatest work. Selick would later go on to collaborate with Burton again directing Disney’s adaptation of Roald Dahl’s James and the Giant Peach (1996) and would later direct the Oscar-nominated Coraline (2009) for Laika.
One of my favorite Burton films was Disney’s Ed Wood (1994), which was a biography of the low-budget sci-fi filmmaker responsible for famous bomb Plan 9 from Outer Space. Johnny Depp played Wood in his second collaboration with Burton, and Martin Landau received a much-deserved Oscar playing Bela Lugosi. It was the first of Burton’s films not to be successful at the box office but it received good reviews. It was also the first of Burton’s films to tone down the fantasy and go for a more grounded style.
Other Burton films include Mars Attacks! (1996) a star-studded disaster film parody based on a popular sci-fi trading card game; Sleepy Hollow (1999) based on The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving and starring Johnny Depp as Ichabod Crane; a reboot of Planet of the Apes (2001); Big Fish (2003), based on the 1998 novel Big Fish: A Novel of Mythic Proportions by Daniel Wallace which was about a man named Edward Bloom (Albert Finney) who tells his son the fantastic and exaggerated story of his life, with Ewan McGregor as the younger Bloom in flashback;
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005), the musical adaptation of Roald Dahl’s book starring Johnny Depp as Willy Wonka; Corpse Bride, Tim Burton’s animated feature film directorial debut; Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007), a gore-filled musical starring Johnny Depp as the deadly barber and Helena Bonham Carter as his pie-baking wife; Alice in Wonderland (2010), which was set 13 years after the original story by Lewis Carroll and starred Mia Wasikowska as Alice. It was such a huge box office success that it encouraged Disney to go down the path of live-action remakes they are currently on;
Dark Shadows (2012) based on the classic gothic noir soap opera; Frankenweenie (2012), a stop motion animated remake of the 1984 short film that got Burton fired from Disney (that’s irony for you). This animated version is the superior version and it was nominated for an Oscar (of which I thought it was more deserving than Brave, Wreck-It Ralph and Paranorman); Big Eyes (2014), a biographical drama about American artist Margaret Keane (Amy Adams), the artist whose work was falsely credited to her then-husband Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz) and the bitter divorce that followed. It was Burton’s only biography since Ed Wood and was written by the same team behind that film; Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children (2016) based on the 2011 young adult fantasy novel by Ransom Riggs; Dumbo (2019), a remake of the classic 1941 Disney film with a new spin on the story.
Tim Burton is one of those filmmakers who I appreciate more for his visual style than his filmmaking skills. Not that he isn’t a good director, but his art style is phenomenal and as a fan of the freakish and the abnormal since childhood, it was always the most appealing thing about him to me. So even though this article is about his film career, I can’t end it without sharing some of his brilliant artwork as well.